More than once, our narrator evades capture. But she suffers a great deal too. Sometimes she makes clear and unvarnished statements about violence. Other times she includes a sensory detail to bring the war off the page: “The Viet Cong in the room started shooting and the noise from their guns was so loud I saw double.”
Overall, the prose feels thick with detail and emotion; in another reading mood, this might have swamped my curiosity but instead I found myself more thoroughly invested in her story.
Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do (2017), also considers a young woman’s experiences in a family of immigrants, that escaped to America in 1978 from Vietnam.
One morning in 2015, after she births her first child in a California hospital, the narrator’s mother returns to the hospital with a bowl of pho (a hot noodle soup with bean sprouts and basil) that “tastes like home”.
Now, as a new parent herself, Thi Bui has a fresh impetus to understand her own mother and father, as well as the traditions she’s inherited and will transmit.
To her, her parents represent “two sides of a chasm—full of meaning and resentment”. They, in turn, feel “stuck in limbo between two sets of expectations”. Even when she returns to Vietnam in her twenties, to construct a different way of understanding Má and Pô’, it’s her memories of growing up in California that hold sway.